Demonstrators marched in Decatur, Georgia, last summer to protest racial injustice and police brutality. New Hampshire’s HB 544 on “divisive topics” would essentially ban teachers from discussing systemic racism in classrooms. (Jill Nolin | Georgia Recorder)
“I don’t see race.” How many times have you heard this phrase from well-meaning white people?
It sounds ideal, doesn’t it? A person saying this generally means that when meeting and getting to know people, she ascribes no racial stereotypes to their characters. She takes only their personalities into account when forming friendships, assesses only professionally relevant traits if that is the context for their meeting. She’s not saying she literally doesn’t see race, of course. If you ask her the actual color of a lunch partner’s skin, she is able to answer the question. What she wants you to know when she says “I don’t see race” is that she does not make race-based judgments. In short, she’s telling you she’s not a racist.
The problem with an individual saying “I don’t see race,” however, is that he’s not seeing the truth. If you don’t see race, you don’t see the whole person standing in front of you, including her heritage and her culture. A white person saying “I don’t see race” is saying “I don’t see you.” He, a white person, is choosing to erase part of that person’s identity – an identity of which she may be quite proud. And dismissing the value of someone else’s racial identity is not a white person’s choice to make.
Telling a person of color “I don’t see you” also ignores the aspects of her life that necessarily exist in response to white oppression. It doesn’t matter if you believe in white oppression or not; it’s both a historical and a current fact. If you listen to people of color – and in a conversation about race, you should – you will begin to understand how this oppression is happening now. Asian Americans, for example, continually endure a litany of “Where are you really from?” that clearly implies they are not sufficiently American. The discomfort those questions impose have transformed into fear due to the elevated violence of the past 14 months. “The talk” Black parents have with their sons is not a single conversation, but a lifelong, reality-based fear that their young adult kids will face unavoidable death at the hands of white law enforcement. That fear changes behavior and creates painful scars.
Individuals trying not to see race sweep all of this out of their sight. But the state of New Hampshire is also trying not to see race, and it’s doing so with motivations that are considerably less benign.
New Hampshire’s population is 89.8 percent non-Hispanic white. If you’re not a person of color, it’s possible to go months without giving any thought at all to racism, especially if you want to believe that it isn’t much of a problem here. But our demographic composition hardly insulates us from racism. It just makes it easier for some people to pretend that racism isn’t systemic; rather, it comes from just a few societal outliers who don’t represent “the New Hampshire way.”
That view of our state is a whitewashed one. If you doubt this, talk to children of color and their families. (Full disclosure: I am white, but my family is multiracial.) Ask them about their experiences at school: teachers who hear kids mocking other kids or adults of color on the playground or in the classroom, but say nothing in response; Black kids called the “n” word; adults who repeatedly refer to all the Asian kids in a class or grade by each others’ names; and so on. These are everyday occurrences in school districts in New Hampshire, but they are rarely discussed outside of the homes of people of color or anti-racist organizations. Ask adults of color about comments aimed at them in the community at large.
State leadership in the hands of the GOP has made clear exactly where it stands when it comes to support for New Hampshire residents of color. It’s bad enough that Speaker of the House Sherman Packard has allowed Reps. Jim Spillane and Dawn Johnson to post racist (and anti-Semitic) bile without consequence. Now House Republicans have attached the shameful “divisive concepts” bill, HB 544, to the budget, which would effectively make it illegal to teach about systemic racism, slavery, and Japanese internment camps during World War II. Employers with state contracts would be forbidden from conducting diversity training of any kind. What does this say to children and adults of color in New Hampshire?
It says the levers of state government do not see them. It says that New Hampshire government ignores their truth and has no intention of addressing the very real racism in our state.
It consigns the lived experience of New Hampshire’s residents of color to the back of a Granite State bus.
It’s crucial to understand that racism is not merely historical. It is in New Hampshire today, and it is most certainly systemic. Further, if you are white, like I am, it is a privilege to go through life without being weighed down by its burdens. Acknowledging this does not make you a bad person. You can be well-meaning and enjoy white privilege. You can have a hard life and still have white privilege. It doesn’t mean you haven’t suffered for other reasons. It just means that there is a very real, omnipresent, and hurtful cast to some people’s lives that you do not bear because of the color of your skin.
If that feels like an uncomfortable acknowledgement, that’s OK. A little discomfort is a small price to pay to achieve empathy and respect for people of color, and that’s the first step toward breaking down systemic racism.
See race. Feel empathy. Only then can systemic racism in our lives and in our state truly begin to change.
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